Ali Mitgutsch, Revered German Children’s Illustrator, Dies at 86
BERLIN — Hippies dance to the Beatles while the downstairs neighbor uses her broom trying to get them to turn down the music. Several apartments up, a boy with a bad toothache is waiting for the dentist. The mailman is forced to climb the stairs because the kids have taken over the elevator. In the flat below that of a man with a broken leg, a married couple has just moved in.
For Ali Mitgutsch, who died in Munich on Jan. 10 at 86, all these stories happen on a single teeming page, each of them told not with words but through pictures. And pages like it filled his children’s books.
They have lined the bookshelves of generations of children in Germany, where he became a household name, and where he was celebrated as the father of what Germans call the “Wimmelbuch” (meaning a book that is swarming) — books whose detailed drawings of vast groups of people may include visual jokes and anecdotes.
Over his career he drew more than 70 books, which have sold millions of copies and been translated into 15 languages. He also produced puzzles and posters.
Their success anticipated similar publishing phenomena, most notably the British illustrator Martin Hanford’s “Where’s Wally?” series. (“Where’s Waldo? in the U.S.)
His publisher, Ravensburger, attributed the death to complications of pneumonia.
“We have lost a wonderful person and a great illustrator in Ali Mitgutsch,” President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany said in a statement. “With his drawings, he made us — myself included — laugh, think and dream.”
Mr. Mitgutsch was an unknown illustrator when he hit on his trademark concept in 1968. “Rundherum in Meiner Stadt” (“In the Busy Town”), his first book in what soon became a series, featured large tableaus — of a city park, a construction site, an apartment building — with myriad seemingly unrelated characters going about their daily lives. The book, which is still in print, in 1969 won Germany’s prestigious youth book prize the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis.
“Cheeky, funny and affectionate, he looked at the world and at our human weaknesses,” said President Steinmeier, who in 2018 gave Mr. Mitgutsch Germany’s highest civilian honor, the Bundesverdienstkreuz.
Mr. Mitgutsch did not like the word “Wimmelbuch,” even though his publisher used it in the titles of many of his later books. He preferred the term “self-narrating picture book.” Indeed, texts were rare in his books; words were usually found only on signs within a picture.
In his 2015 memoir, written with Ingmar Gregorzewski, Mr. Mitgutsch recalled lying awake in bed as a child in the summer during World War II, straining his ears and letting his imagination run, greedy for the bustle of city life in his working-class neighborhood of Munich. His drawings, done from a bird’s-eye perspective (usually from roughly the height of his third-floor childhood apartment), gave views of everyday life that were at once encompassing and intimate; it reminded some reviewers of the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel.
Alfons Mitgutsch was born on Aug. 21, 1935, the youngest of four children of Ludwig and Pauline Mitgutsch. His father, who had trained as baker, became a railroad worker after injuring his hand in World War I. Ali grew up in relative poverty in an apartment building that had belonged to his maternal grandfather until he was forced to sell it during Germany’s economic turmoil in the 1920s.
Mr. Mitgutsch trained as a commercial illustrator before trying his hand at children’s books in the late 1950s. He published several without much success before hitting on the format that would make him famous.
He is survived by his second wife, Heidi, whom he married after his first wife died; three children, Oliver, Florian and Katrin; and four grandchildren. His son Florian is also a children’s book illustrator.
Mr. Mitgutsch’s childhood memories were not all happy ones. He lived through aerial bombardments of Munich; his older brother Ludwig, a hero to him, was killed while serving with the Wehrmacht in Russia. And Mr. Mitgutsch suffered from severe dyslexia, which led teachers to abuse him, he said.
“His childhood was always a central theme of his inner life,” Mr. Gregorzewski said. “He was never able to completely let it go.”
He added, “His art was his way to call out to other children to come and play, and generations of kids did.”